How One Domestic Violence Survivor Created a Beauty Company With a Big Heart

Evelyn Iona cosmetics founder Brandi Leifso. (Photo: Brandi Leifso)

In 2012, Brandi Leifso escaped a violent partner and went to a safe house in Vancouver, Canada, where she stayed for a short but transformative seven days. Just a few months later, she founded Evelyn Iona, a collection of natural and organic cosmetics. Today she donates one dollar from every sale to the YWCA Canada, which helped her get back on her feet during her time of need.

The transition is almost unfathomable. Escaping domestic violence is in itself an accomplishment. Building a company in the immediate aftermath of such trauma is, however, mind-blowingly inspiring. But for Leifso, creating her company was both her escape plan and her salvation. Hard work was her survival tactic.

As for the company’s rapid ascendancy, Leifso attributes it to the personal force behind Evelyn Iona, “because of where I came from, there’s a cause behind what I’m doing — we’re not just creating a business for profit,” she says.

Leifso’s journey began when she found herself seeking shelter. “When you’re in an unhealthy relationship and there’s violence involved, the safest place for you is often one where nobody knows where you are — it doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have family to go to but that it wouldn’t be safe for you to be with your family,” Leifso says of the situation she was in.

Reflecting on those seven days, she explains that from the moment she arrived, she was seen as someone who “wouldn’t be there for long.” At the time, this hurt. She’d escaped similar situations as the other women at the shelter. Since then, however, she has come to be grateful for the self-fulfilling prophecy bestowed upon her. “I was never treated like I was going to be there forever, and looking back, I think that’s the best way,” says Leifso. “I realized that I was a lot stronger than I ever thought I was.”

Leifso herself is soft-spoken (at least, at first) and oozes compassion. Lest you mistake any of these features for a lack of self-confidence, you’d be wrong. Everything about her and her journey spells courage. In fact, she’d made her first Evelyn Iona sales before she even had a tangible product.

Before Leifso arrived at the shelter, she had made industry connections through past work managing international models and mastered Photoshop (this is key!) skills. “I actually created the brand and created what I wanted the products to be before the products themselves were ever created,” she says. “I had Photoshopped a catalog before the products existed. I Photoshopped lip glosses and compacts and then went around to different stores and made presales.”

With her conviction in her mission and her product, it seemed only natural that the line she created be, you know, actually good for women to use. After all, the skin is the body’s largest organ, and as the Evelyn Iona site explains, it absorbs 80 percent of what is applied topically to it. Today the brand offers professional-grade makeup “made of ingredients you would find in your breakfast — coffee in our mascara and green tea in our primer.”

For Leifso, beauty and makeup were a powerful force in building an army of connected women, united by using the same product day in and day out. “The cosmetic industry was dominated by men,” she says, “particularly men on Wall Street who just saw dollar signs, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s a $426 billion industry, if you see room to be involved; I’m not here to criticize capitalism,” she says, jokingly, “but I was there for different reasons.” A mere two and a half years later, Evelyn Iona has earned shelf space at Credo Beauty, a go-to boutique for must-haves in the clean beauty space, and on the digital shelves at Birchbox.

You can count on seeing more of this scrappy little beauty company with a big heart in the near future. Just a month ago, Evelyn Iona joined the ranks at QVC: “We actually, to be completely honest, we found the buyer on LinkedIn and we sent her a message saying, ‘Hey, watch this video.’ They messaged us back, we spoke … and within a month we were live,” says Leifso.

Recently, Leifso worked with YWCA Canada headquarters to name a special-edition lip gloss, She-Rose ($21), for which, from Nov. 25 to Dec. 6, Evelyn Iona will contribute $5 of every sale to the Rose Campaign to end violence against women. The name conveys multiple meanings for the women: It represents sheroes, because women who rise above challenges are heroes, nods to the rose in the campaign’s name, and represents, literally, the notion that “‘she rose’ from a difficult situation to become a success, whatever that may mean to her.”

Major successes aside, this survivor will never let go of her roots, which is part of what makes this brand wonderful. Reflecting on how she got to where she is now (Evelyn Iona products have also been featured in Vogue and the New York Times) from where she was barely three years ago, Leifso says, “I think it really came from a place of having more purpose than just building a company. And that’s something that’s contagious, I’ve found.”

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